Sunday, 10 February 2008

From the Khyber to Ceylon (Chapter 8 - Into India)

While we were waiting for this, I tried desperately to extricate the batch of new film which was waiting for us at the airline office, but this too proved to be an almost insurmountable task. We went from one Government department to another and from end to end of the city, filling in forms, declaring we were not hostile to the Pakistani Government, pleading, cajoling, ranting at the authorities to release our property.

During this time of frustration and uncertainty a young man, Abdul Qauyum Shaikh, came on the scene; he was a friend of the NSU dealers and had both influence and patience with which to deal with the red-tape. He helped us enormously and was wonderfully hospitable to Nita and me during our stay in Lahore. When all our business had been completed, save for the arrival of the new parts from Germany, it was he who arranged a long weekend trip up to the hill station of Murray, high above the arid plains.

We left a Lahore gasping in 110 degrees of heat, to arrive half a day later at the rest-house of Changla Gali, where we huddled gratefully around a blazing log fire to keep out the bitter mountain cold. There were three of us in the party: Nita and myself and a German doctor of languages, with whom we had become very friendly at the Lahore hotel. A tall, gaunt Bavarian, only thirty-five years old, owing his cadaverous looks to ten years in Russia as a prisoner of war, our companion possessed a shrewd, critical mind and a dry, refreshing sense of humour. He was a bachelor, who preferred teaching Pakistani students to his own countrymen and liked the hermit-like existence at Sunny View Hotel.

On the Sunday, while Nita stayed behind to rest, we climbed a nearby peak as the sun rose, in an effort to see the mighty Nanga Parbat, one of the Himalayan giants. We stood on the mountain and gazed into the far distance as the sunlight crept rapidly over the crystal peaks. For a second we felt we had seen the great snow-crested outline, thrusting up into the sky; it may have been a cloud formation, but we liked to think we had seen the mountain. If we had not, I had at least found a kindred spirit in this German, a man who could understand my urge to see over the next horizon.

On our return to steaming Lahore there was another hold-up while the mechanics assembled the bits and pieces (which had miraculously arrived) in all sorts of sequences endeavouring to find the right combination. One would hardly credit that a rear scooter hub could be so complex. There was only one correct way to assemble the twenty-odd parts; otherwise the wheel locked solidly.

After a further two weeks of trial and error, the machine was once more declared to be fully roadworthy. To our surprise, and infinite relief, this proved to be quite true. We prepared for the long haul down through India to Ceylon.

What a difference the beautiful tarmac roads-a legacy of British rule-made to our progress. Instead of hard-fought fifty-mile maximums, thickly coating us in dust, we could step up our daily total to two or three hundred miles, according to our mood. But on the road to adventure nothing seems to come easily. True, we were now free from the appalling dust and horrific surfaces, but in order that things should not be too easy we had to run into the monsoon season in northern India. The rain fell steadily, a chilling, raw downpour that soaked us constantly day after day and night after night. Time and again we were washed out of our camping positions, after which, drugged with fatigue and shivering in wet clothes, we would pack our few belongings and push on without stopping again until daylight.

The whole of Delhi seemed to be under water when we arrived on yet another cold, grey morning, and the road was awash under inches of water. To our left and right, flat rice-fields looked utterly dreary in their swampiness, and I can vividly remember a dejected old man picking his way across waterlogged fields, from a saturated mud hut with crumbling walls, his flapping dhoti lifted high above his knees. He epitomized the whole depressing scene.

To make matters worse, one night after we had left the Indian capital there was a fairly severe earthquake which shook the ground beneath us and woke us with a frightening start. It was violent enough to make headlines in an English-language newspaper which we bought the next morning. This incident and the unrelenting rain spurred us along all the faster, and the scooter was forced to its maximum on the road south in search of some warmth, sunshine and terra firma.

Probably because of the bad weather, we hated the sight of northern India. Woefully overcrowded, the flat plains seemed to stretch into infinity, dotted with thousands of stereotyped villages, drab and poverty-stricken. Everyone we met was either begging, spitting lustily, or sleeping. Beggars accosted us everywhere, terribly twisted, hideously scarred creatures who held their afflictions as close to us as they dared, whining the while for annas. After a few days one could feel no pity for these wretched people, only a growing impatience with each succeeding beggar. Through the smelly, littered bazaars we manoeuvred around sacred cows and dung and children playing in the filth, and drove through the fetid atmosphere as quickly as possible.

Throughout the long, boring haul down to Bombay I blessed the manufacturers of the Prima for supplying a robust and really audible horn. After the solitude of most of the journey so far, through the comparative quiet of the Middle East, it was impossible to drive through any of these communities without using the horn every few minutes. People just milled around in the middle of the streets, ignoring trucks, private cars and, of course, us. Once free of the towns, however, we made excellent time on the perfect road surface.

The skies were still leaden, and as we had no particular interest in architecture, we did what our friends at home considered an unprecedented thing. We went straight through Agra without stopping to see the Taj Mahal. Nita has never quite forgiven me for this. The truth was that up to that time I was disappointed in the 'magic of India'. What I had seen held for me hardly a fraction of the fascination of the African continent, and these people, with an average life expectancy of thirty-eight years for both sexes, seemed passive, carrying the visible resignation of their poverty and gross overcrowding. They did not possess the sunny lustre of the Africans I had met.